12th August 2020
Earlier this week, there was an outbreak of common sense in Scotland. The expectation was that this outbreak would spread across the UK within days. In England, at least there seems to be a strong immune reaction to common sense and it has been contained. The announcement yesterday that the Westminster government would allow students to appeal based on previous ‘mock’ exams, and have their downgraded results adjusted upwards, comes too late for the UCAS/University selection machine that was already rolling. The decision comes as one of the most stupid actions I have seen in my many years in education. Common sense was confined to the waste bin. TEFS made Ten suggestions last Friday that could have been acted upon. They were to some extent followed in Scotland and the other governments across the UK could have also reversed out in time. The jury is out on whether this is a panic reaction by an incompetent government or whether it is driven by a wilful determination to maintain the existing inequalities. This is an update from the posting yesterday that is listed below this offering.
Posting from 11th August 2020
Scottish Government reverses out of trouble in outbreak of common sense
There was an unprecedented outbreak of common sense in Scotland today. No doubt those in the rest of the UK will be monitoring the situation closely in case it starts to spread. The Education Secretary, John Swinney, stood up in the Scottish parliament just after 3pm today and started with a rambling introduction about the examination administration this summer. He then broke out in a sweat of common sense. He took complete responsibility for the mistake of what he admitted was “downgrading” and reversed the exam results. Thereby removing the need for the massive number of appeals that were about to flood in. The Scottish government has adopted nearly all ten suggestions set out by TEFS a few days ago. This was the only sensible way out and the rest of the UK must follow in their footsteps.
Swinney made other promises that were in the ten TEFS suggestions (see TEFS 7th August 2020 ‘Qfqual builds a concrete wall’). He indicated that he had many letters from students and found them compelling. This was no doubt a key driver in the decision. Those students are to be congratulated for standing up and making the case for those who were affected by the large numbers of downgraded results. Importantly, the regrading on teacher predictions will not be detrimental to students already awarded grades they were higher than predicted; there are a small number of these. New certificates will be sent out to students as soon as possible and new data sets released by the end of the month. This is a very short turnaround.
- Go ahead with the current grades as it is too late to stop now with UCAS and clearing in the wings
- Reveal how the grades were calculated in detail with data available openly
- Report the awarded grades to the candidates, UCAS and the universities along with the predicted grades and the past performance of the school in each subject. This must include n, standard deviation and range.
- UCAS must set out guidance on how to use the data on each candidate as an individual. This includes a fair way to make contextual decisions that reflect the work and determination of the candidate along with potential they offer.
- All universities, including the elite research ones, should take context into account when awarding places this year. They should go further and pilot this as a way forward from next year.
- Appeals should be stopped at once. It will only advantage those from better off families that push harder and will be socially divisive and unfair.
- The entire process should be put under independent review to reassess all grades across every school and centre. It must be very robust and Qfqual and the government should not be allowed to hide in the corner.
- Resits in the Autumn might go ahead, but this must be uncertain as some will be impeded by more lock-downs by then. Students already in their first term at university should be given the same chance to improve since A-Level results will still be important in their later job applications.
- No student should have their results downgraded because of the review exercise. But if there are systemic errors and mistakes evident, then they should be openly acknowledged, and lessons learned.
- Regrading checks must be completed by the summer of 2020, and before the completion of the next round of examinations, to expedite university decisions for those trying again.
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.